Last Shabbos, I was curled up in my arctic sleeping bag. Granted, that particular sleeping bag was a little overkill for the night we were having. The temperature in the RV was only in the 40’s, not below zero. Still, it was a taste of things to come as we each did what we needed to do to stay warm. The kids were curled in blankets and jackets and our crockpot dinner was welcome warmth. Shabbos began early, although not as early as it will. It was the last Shabbos for a while that the kids were able to do a full day of school.
Cold, like hunger, gnaws at the spirit, with patience wearing thin and small discomforts magnified and yet, there was a pride we all felt and a connection to previous generations of Jews who braved all kinds of discomforts or even danger to keep the Sabbath. We’re far more fortunate in that there are no dangers for us and even our discomforts are mitigated by modern technology. There is camping gear here in Alaska that allows people to camp even in the most extreme conditions and we even had a shelter and the ability to have warm food.
I’m preparing for an even darker Shabbos.
In a few weeks, as soon as some equipment arrives, I will need to travel to Kuparuk, an oil drilling camp. It lies just inland from the arctic ocean, far north of the arctic circle and not far from the northernmost point of Alaska. Yesterday, I attended a training that is mandatory for anyone going to these kinds of camps where I learned just how extreme an environment it is and about all the dangers and what to do to avoid those dangers. Each module, essentially, was all about another way to die there. Polar bears that never hibernate and see humans as food make grizzly bears seem cuddly by comparison. Cold that can kill in a short period of time if you aren’t prepared for it. Contagious disease that spreads quickly in confined quarters. Poisonous gases released from far below the frozen permafrost. Cold so bitter that machinery stops functioning. Darkness that lasts months.
I will only be up there for a week or two and the company that has contracted us is providing me kosher food. I’m working with my local Orthodox Rabbi to work out candle lighting times and I’m taking a coworker with me who I will train to do this work and it’s likely that he’ll handle any future trips like this. It feels almost like preparing for a week or two on a moon colony. I will spend a Shabbos or two there, among the oil workers, in a long night that takes months until the first dawn, far from home and family.
Yet, even there, there could be opportunities for connection, for warmth and for Judaism. Who knows if one of the workers might see my sheitel and casually mention that his mother was Jewish? Who knows what inspiration might come from spending this time in a place so foreign, so extreme? At the very least, I am sure I will have some time for uninterrupted reading and davening. The questions I have are interesting ones that make me wonder about future Jews. How will space traveling Orthodox Jews handle Shabbos and candle lighting in the constant night of space?
Where there is a will, there is almost always a way.